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Apple's iOS 6 3D Flyovers aim to be more helpful, less creepy than Google Street View

Flyover's virtual StreetView

In August 2011, Apple bought C3 Technologies, known for its work in developing 3D images based on aerial or satellite images. By melding building model outlines with photos taken from satellites or low flying aircraft, C3 figured out how to create virtual models without necessarily sending cameras down the street.

While StreetView is tailored to discovering what an exact address looks like from the perspective of a passing car, Apple's Flyover technology can provide both a bird's eye view of building faces and an interactive, 360 view of panoramas from rooftops or hilltops or virtually any arbitrary, midair vantage point.

Another distinct advantage of Flyover over StreetView is that in StreetView, the user must proceed through panoramic nodes one step at a time. With Flyover, users can hover above a location, viewing the entire street and surrounding streets all at the same time, seeing a continuous representation of an entire path through a given neighborhood.

This continuous pan and zoom navigation is more akin to the approach of Google Earth rather than the "one step at a time" StreetView, but Flyover (below top) is distinctly sharper than Google Earth (below bottom) without going so far as offering a view into people's windows.

One downside to the Flyover/Google Earth approach is that it is far more computationally intensive; rather than looking at a relatively simple, distorted and stitched photograph of a fixed panorama, the system must model thousands of 3D objects (buildings, tree and other structures) within a given scene, then wrap them with photographic skins.

Every 3D scene is dynamically active, meaning it can be rotated around 360 degrees, up and down, and at a wide range of viewing angles relative to the horizon in a vast 3D space. This provides a modeled city view reminiscent of video games such as "InFamous" (or "SimCity," if you were born before 1985), except with far more detailed complexity and a viewing area a big as the world itself.

So far, there are a limited number of cities that have fully modeled support, but the infrastructure is in place to deliver a Flyover experience anywhere. Apple is also reportedly adding support for new cities (like Portland, Oregon, below) at a regular clip. There's also a technology curve that taxes the resources of even the newest iOS hardware, but things can only improve as mobile devices get faster.


Google (among others) is also deploying its own 3D mobile maps, and would realistically be expected to be far ahead of Apple given its distant head start in mapping and 3D modeling with Google Earth. However, developers report that Google's 3D maps are in many cases inferior to the developer builds visible in Apple's iOS 6 Maps app.

Moscone Center

View of Moscone Center in Google Earth (left) and Apple Maps (right)

Additionally, Apple is already providing models for areas Google hasn't yet, such as this view of San Francisco's Treasure Island, where Google Earth simply presents the map rendered as a flat surface (which Apple also does in areas where there are not yet models).

3D model view

If Flyover's full 3D modeling seems too graphically intensive for today's hardware, consider instead the highly efficient 3D model mode in iOS 6 Maps' standard street view.

When viewing a location top down, you get a view similar to that provided by the current Google Maps server, except that building masses are rendered as 2D outlines rather than as flat 3D with a slight perspective effect. Below, San Francisco's downtown Union Square area in standard 2D.

You can touch the 3D button to get a perspective view, where buildings and other structures pop up from the surface of the map. Drag two fingers up or down and the perspective changes from straight down to about 45 degrees downward. Below, the same view as above, but in standard 3D.

Spin the map with two fingers and you can look down actual street corridors, very similar to the views in Google Earth. Of course, building models only exist for a limited number of major cities. Even in areas where there are not yet models, 3D views of Map's 2D vector outlines provide an additional level of perspective from an airplane-like view. Below, the same map, rotated to look up Market Street.

Where building models do exist, 3D "standard view" provides a useful overview of what a neighborhood's structures look like. It isn't really comparable to StreetView, but it is a very fast and responsive way to explore around neighborhoods. Below, Apple's Cupertino campus in standard 3D mode.

On page 3 of 3: 3D Flyover with satellite images, and which is creepier?